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In special session rubble, spotlight shines bright on Straus

Following a bruising special session that ended a day earlier than expected, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus drew sharp criticism from some fellow Republicans as well as questions about his future as head of the lower chamber.

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, emerges smiling from a caucus of Republican members after the 85th Legislature adjourned sine die on Aug. 16, 2017.  

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus and his chamber emerged from the rubble of a bruising special session Wednesday as a subject of both intense criticism and speculation about his future as head of the lower chamber.

There did not appear to be any immediate threats to Straus' speakership, though the post-session finger-pointing signaled the intra-party conflict that consumed most of it is not going away anytime soon.

The House abruptly closed out the special session a day early Tuesday, declining to further negotiate on a key property tax bill after it agreed to Senate changes to a school finance package. Over the next 12 hours, both the governor and lieutenant governor of Texas sharply criticized Straus, a fellow Republican, making clear they both believed that the blame for measures that didn't survive should be laid at his feet. 

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Senate, declared the House "quit on the taxpayers of Texas" and unfurled a bevy of jabs at Straus — one of them invoking the Battle of the Alamo — at a late-night news conference following the Senate's decision to follow the House's lead and end the session in their chamber a day early. The Senate did so without accepting a House version of the property tax bill, rejecting what one senator described as a "take-it-or-leave-it" proposal. 

Gov. Greg Abbott cranked up the heat Wednesday morning, assigning blame to Straus and the House for slow-walking his agenda and not giving all 20 items a vote on the House floor. He also portrayed Straus as an obstructionist when it came to the most controversial legislation on the call, a "bathroom bill" that would have regulated which restroom transgender Texans can use. 

"There's no evidence he's going to change his mind on it, and that's why elections matter," Abbott told Houston radio station KTRH, immediately stoking speculation that he was laying the groundwork for a Straus ouster. 

In a subsequent radio interview, Abbott stopped short of calling for a new speaker but made clear many of the unfinished items on his agenda are unlikely to become law as long as Straus is speaker. "We've got to get the votes in the House," said Abbott, whose well-funded political operation is gearing up for a much bigger role in the upcoming primaries than it had last time around. 

Abbott's blows landed as Straus attended a closely watched meeting of the House Republican Caucus. It had been requested by the conservative Freedom Caucus, which is looking to establish a process for Republican lawmakers to determine a candidate for speaker before the next session — potentially someone other than Straus, who intends to seek a record-breaking sixth term behind the gavel in 2019. 

The House elects its speaker on the first day of the regular session. Historically, all of the 150 members in the chamber have voted on their own, leading to speakers supported by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats in the past. Democratic support played a role in Straus' original election to Speaker in 2009, prompting critics who view Straus as too moderate to argue that the caucus could draw a more conservative speaker if they could unite behind another candidate.

Over 80 of the chamber's 95 Republican members reportedly showed up to Wednesday's meeting, which lasted roughly an hour and a half and ended with a standing ovation for Straus. Freedom Caucus members came out of the meeting saying they were looking forward to continuing a discussion about speaker nomination rules at the House Republican Caucus' September retreat.

"Nothing was decided except that it's a conversation that's worthy of being continued," said state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, chairman of the Freedom Caucus. "We're not talking about a person. We're talking about a process."

Straus briefly spoke with reporters as he left the meeting, making a short walk from the room where the caucus met to a bank of elevators. 

"We had a very good conversation, and I enjoyed it," Straus said. "I think all of us did. Very constructive, very positive, very unifying in a lot of ways." 

He did not answer shouted questions about Patrick's criticism Tuesday night. In a statement after the meeting, Straus said the House "considered every idea carefully, listened to constituents, and acted on a number of critical issues" during the special session. He also thanked Abbott for working with the lower chamber on his "very ambitious agenda."

A number of Straus lieutenants were tight-lipped about how the caucus meeting went as they darted out of it. "Very good," said state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, chairman of the Calendars Committee. "Good, productive meeting," repeatedly said state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, chairman of the State Affairs Committee. State Rep. Dan Huberty — a Houston Republican who was deeply involved in end-of-session talks as the House's education chief — declined to comment. 

Straus' situation was not just the talk of Republicans on Wednesday morning. He was repeatedly mentioned at a nearby Capitol rally featuring Democratic lawmakers, where U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, a former member of the Texas House, spoke of a "very ugly internal fight" in the Texas GOP and accused Abbott and Patrick of seeking to "cannibalize" Straus. As for the speaker's future, Democrats suggested they were watching the GOP caucus deliberations with interest.

"The jury's out," state Rep. César Blanco of El Paso said, "and we'll see what Republicans decide."

Straus has easily survived various challenges since he rose to power in 2009. The last time the GOP caucus chose to collectively nominate a speaker candidate — in 2011 — Straus prevailed with the support of an overwhelming majority of members. 

Straus does not seem fazed by his critics as of late. With a few days left in the regular session in May, Straus quietly filed paperwork with the Texas Ethics Commission declaring his candidacy for speaker in the 2019 session. Asked if he was definitely running again Wednesday, Straus offered a smile and few words as he waited for elevator doors to close, a pack of reporters in tow. 

"No big announcements in that room," Straus responded. "It was a good conversation. Very positive."

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